Totem Douangmala
Masterchef Series 5 contestant

"Learning and understanding different cultures will guide great acceptance not only within the workplace, but also the wider community"

Check out Totem's amazing Chicken Larb here

What is your cultural background?

My cultural background is Laotian. I was born in a Thailand refugee camp on the border of Laos in a village called Nakhon Phanom. Both of my parents are from Lao's capital city Vientiane and the cooking here reflects influences from Vietnam, China and Thailand. Many people consider dishes such as green papaya salad (som tum) to be Thai but its origins relate closer to the Lao people and the people of Isan (northern Thailand). Although quite similar, Lao food should not be mistaken with Thai food.

Colonised by the French until 1953, Loa takes on French influences throughout: from architecture to food influences such as the use of the herb dill and beautiful French baguettes. If you've ever considered why Vietnamese bakeries whip up the ubiquitous and delicious Bahn Mi, it is because Vietnam was also colonized by the French.

Wikipedia: could not have said this better - (Sticky rice is considered the essence of what it means to be "Lao" — sometimes the Lao even referred to themselves as "Luk Khao Niaow", which can be translated as "children/descendants of sticky rice".)

How has Australia’s diverse culture impacted on the foods you cook?

It is truly amazing to be surrounded by such diverse cultures and the food which stems from it. As a lover of all food, Australia accommodates and continues to embrace the diversity in it's food - I love this about Australia! My cooking style has accommodated changes through Australia's diverse food scene, creating what was once traditional and adapting that to Australia's style. 

I remember going to school and mum would pack us children fried rice. Watching all the other kids with sandwiches and pre-packed lunches, I remember being out of my depths. Nowadays, it would be perfectly normal to rock up to school with fried rice, showcasing the importance for acceptance and bridging cultures closer together.  

What role does food play in bringing cultures together?

Food plays and fundamental role in bringing cultures together. Food creates a common ground or median point in which allows people to interact regardless of cultural background. We all need to eat and I'm constantly asking people about their most personal foods. What do you like eating at home? What ingredients are you using? How are you cooking that? these are the questions I'm asking my colleagues on my lunch break. It was on one of these questions I fell in love with ingera/ingera (Ethiopian) and jerk chicken (Jamaican) both of whom were Ethiopian and Jamaican. We all need a common ground to relate with and I think food does this better than any other.

Why do you think it’s important to learn about and understand the different cultures of the people you work with?

I think it's fundamentally important to learn and understand the different cultures within the workplace as it helps bridge acceptance and minimize stereotyping. After all, who wouldn't want to eat that delicious smelling curry your work mate brings into lunch every Thursday lunch break?  Or those insanely crispy duck fat roast potatoes your mate brought to lunch after Sunday roast? Fancy some empanadas? 

Learning and understanding different cultures will guide great acceptance not only within the workplace, but also the wider community.

Why should Australians get involved with A Taste of Harmony?

Australians should definitely get involved with A Taste of Harmony. What better way of building a greater Australia and enjoy food you have forever wanted to try? Experiencing many different dishes with my fellow colleagues has encouraged me to explore different ingredients and recipes. This has enhanced my food and cultural knowledge and I feel wealthier because of it.

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